Read The Nonexistent Knight Online

Authors: Italo Calvino

The Nonexistent Knight (2 page)

He moved toward the edge of the camp, to a solitary place. The calm night was rufflled only by a soft flight of formless little shadows with silent wings, moving around with no direction—bats. Even their wretched bodies, half rat half bird, were something tangible and definite. They could flutter in the air, open-mouthed, swallowing mosquitoes, while Agilulf with all his armor was pierced through every chink by gusts of wind, flights of mosquitoes, and the rays of the moon. A vague anger that had been growing inside of him suddenly exploded. He drew his sword from his sheath, seized it in both hands and waved it wildly in the air against every low-flying bat. Nothing—they continued their flight without beginning or end, scarcely shaken by the movement of air. Agilulf swung blow after blow at them, now not even trying to hit the bats. His lunges followed more regular trajectories, and ordered themselves according to the rules of saber fencing. Now Agilulf was beginning to do his exercises, as if training for the next battle, testing the theory of parry, transverse, and feint.

Suddenly he stopped. A youth had appeared from behind a bush on the slope and was looking at him. He was only armed with a sword and had a light cuirass strapped to his chest.

“Oh, knight!” he exclaimed. “I didn’t want to interrupt you! Are you exercising for the battle? There’s to be a battle at dawn tomorrow, isn’t there? May I exercise with you?” And after a silence, “I reached camp yesterday ... It will be my first battle ... It’s all so different from what I expected ...”

Agilulf was standing sideways, sword close to his chest, arms crossed, all behind his shield. “Arrangements for armed encounters decided by headquarters are communicated to officers and troops one hour before the start of operations,” he said.

The youth looked a little dismayed, as if checked in his course, but overcoming a slight stutter, he went on with his former warmth. “Well, you see, I only just got here ... to avenge my father ... And I wish you experienced old soldiers would please tell me how I can get into battle right opposite that pagan dog Isohar and break my lance in his ribs, as he did to my heroic father, whom God will hold in glory forever, the late Marquis Gerard of Roussillon!”

“That’s quite simple, my lad,” said Agilulf, and there was a certain warmth in his voice, the warmth of one who knows rules and regulations by heart and enjoys showing his own competence, and confusing other’s ignorance. “You must put in a request to the Superintendency of Duels, Feuds and Besmirched Honor, specifying the motives for your request and it will then be considered how to best place you in a position to attain the satisfaction you desire.”

The youth, expecting at least a sign of surprised reverence at the sound of his father’s name, was mortified more by the tone than the sense of this speech. Then he tried to reflect on the words used by the knight, but so as not to admit their meaning, and also to keep up his enthusiasm, he said, “But sir knight, it’s not the superintendents who’re worrying me, please don’t think that. What I’m asking myself is whether in actual battle the courage I feel now, the excitement which seems enough to gut not one but a hundred Infidels, and my skill in arms too, as I'm well trained, you know, I mean if in all that confusion before getting my bearings ... Suppose I don’t find that dog, suppose he escapes me? I'd like to know just what you do in such a case, sir knight, can you tell me that? When a personal matter is at stake in battle, a matter concerning yourself and yourself alone ...”

Agilulf replied dryly, “I keep to the rules. Do that yourself and you won’t make a mistake.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” exclaimed the youth, looking crestfallen. “I didn’t want to be a nuisance. I really would have liked to try a little fencing exercise with you, with a paladin! I’m good at fencing, you know, but sometimes in the early morning my muscles feel slack and cold and don’t respond as I’d like. D’you find that too?”

“No, I do not,” said Agilulf, and turning his back, he walked away.

The youth wandered into the camp. It was the uncertain hour preceding dawn. Among the pavilions could be seen signs of early movement. Headquarters was already astir before the rising bugle. Torches were being lit in staff and orderly tents, contrasting with the half light filtering in from the sky. Was it really a day of battle, this one beginning, as the rumor went the night before? The new arrival was a prey to excitement, but a different excitement from what he had expected or felt till then. Rather, it was an anxiety to feel ground under his feet again, now that all he touched seemed to ring empty.

He met paladins already locked into their gleaming armor and plumed round helmets, their faces covered by visors. The youth turned round to look at them and longed to imitate their bearing, the proud way they swung on hips, breastplate, helmet and shoulder plates, as if made all in one piece! Here he was, among the invincible paladins. Here he was, ready to emulate them in battle, arms in hand, to become like them! But the two he was following, instead of mounting their horses, sat down behind a table covered with papers. They were obviously important commanders. The youth rushed forward to introduce himself. “I am Raimbaut of Roussillon, squire, son of the late Marquis Gerard! I've come to enroll so as to avenge my father who died an heroic death beneath the ramparts of Seville!”

The two raised their hands to their plumed helmets, lifted them by detaching headpiece and basinet, and put them on the table. From under the helmets appeared two bald yellowish heads, two faces with soft pouchy skin and straggly moustaches, the faces of clerks, of scribbling bureaucrats. “Roussillon, Roussillon,” they mumbled, turning over rolls with saliva-damped thumbs. “But we've already matriculated you yesterday! What d’you want? Why aren’t you with your unit?”

“Oh, I don’t know, last night I couldn’t sleep at the thought of battle. I must avenge my father you know, I must kill the Argalif Isohar and so find ... Oh yes: the Superintendency of Duels, Feuds and Besmirched Honor. Where is that?”

“He’s just arrived, this fellow, and he already knows everything! How d’you know of the Superintendency, may I ask?”

“I was told by that knight, I don’t know his name, the one all in white armor...”

“Oh, not him again! If he doesn’t stick his nose everywhere—that nose he hasn’t got!”

“What? Hasn’t got a nose?”

“Since he can’t get the itch,” said the other of the two from behind the table, “he finds nothing better to do than scratch the itches of others.”

“Why can’t he get the itch?”

“Where d’you think he could get the itch if he hasn’t got a place to itch? That’s a nonexistent knight, that is...”

“What do you mean, nonexistent? I saw him myself! There he was!”

“What did you see? Mere ironwork ... He exists without existing, understand, recruit?”

Never could young Raimbaut have imagined appearances to be so deceptive. From the moment he reached the camp he had found everything quite different from what it seemed.

“So in Charlemagne’s army one can be a knight with lots of names and titles and what’s more a bold warrior and zealous officer, without needing to exist!”

“Take it easy! No one said that in Charlemagne’s army one can etc., etc. All we said was in our regiment there is a knight who’s so and so. That’s all. What can or can't be as a matter of general practice is of no interest to us. D’you understand?”

Raimbaut moved off towards the pavilion of the Superintendency of Duels, Feuds and Besmirched Honor. Now he did not let casques and plumed helmets deceive him. He knew that the armor behind those tables merely hid dusty wrinkled little old men. He felt thankful there was
one inside.

“So you wish to avenge your father, the Marquis of Roussillon, by rank a general! Let’s see, now! The best procedure to avenge a general is to kill off three majors. We can assign you three easy ones, then you’re in the clear.”

“I don’t think I’ve explained things properly. It’s Isohar the Argalif I’ve got to kill. He was the one who felled my glorious father!”

“Yes yes, we realise that, but to fell an Argalif is not so simple, believe me ... What about four captains? We can guarantee you four Infidel captains in a morning. Four captains, you know, are equal to an army commander, and your father only commanded a brigade!”

“I’ll search out Isohar and gut him! Him and him alone!”

“You’ll end in the guardhouse, not in battle, you can be sure of that! Just think a little before speaking. If we make difficulties about Isohar, there are reasons. Suppose our emperor, for instance, is in the middle of negotiations with Isohar?”

But one of the officials whose head had been buried in papers till then now raised it jubilantly. “All solved! All solved! No need to do a thing! No point in a vendetta here! The other day Oliver thought two of his uncles were killed in battle and avenged them! But they’d stayed behind and got drunk under a table! We have these two extra uncles’ vendettas on our hands, a terrible mess. Now it can all be settled. We count an uncle’s vendetta as half a father’s. It’s as if we had a father’s vendetta clear, already carried out”

“Oh, dear father!” Raimbaut began to rave.

“What’s the matter?”

Reveille had sounded. The camp, in first light, swarmed with armed men. Raimbaut would have liked to mingle with that jostling mob gradually taking shape as squadrons and companies, but the moving armor sounded to him like a vibrating swarm of insects, buzzing like dry crackling husks. Many warriors were shut in their helmets and breastplates to the waist and under their hip and kidney guards appeared their legs, in breeks and stockings, because they were waiting to put on thigh pieces and leg pieces and knee pieces when they were in the saddle. Under those steel crests their legs seemed thin as crickets’. Their way of moving and speaking, their round eyeless heads, arms folded, hugging forearms and wrists, were also like those of crickets or ants. So the whole bustling throng seemed like a senseless clustering of insects. Amid them all, Raimbaut’s eyes searched for something: the white armor of Agilulf, whom he was hoping to meet again, maybe because his appearance could make the rest of the army seem more concrete, or because the most solid presence he had yet met was the nonexistent knight’s.

He found him under a pine tree, sitting on the ground, arranging fallen pine cones in a regular design: an isosceles triangle. At that hour of dawn Agilulf always needed to apply himself to some precise exercise: counting objects, arranging them in geometric patterns, resolving problems of arithmetic. It was the hour in which objects lose the consistency of shadow that accompanies them during the night and gradually reacquire colors, but seem to cross meanwhile an uncertain limbo, faintly touched, just breathed on by light; the hour in which one is least certain of the world’s existence. He, Agilulf, always needed to feel himself facing things as if they were a massive wall against which he could pit the tension of his will, for only in this way did he manage to keep a sure consciousness of himself. But if the world around was instead melting into the vague and ambiguous, he would feel himself drowning in that morbid half light, incapable of allowing any clear thought or decision to flower in that void. In such moments he felt sick, faint; sometimes only at the cost of extreme effort did he feel himself able to avoid melting away completely. It was then he began to count: trees, leaves, stones, lances, pine cones, anything in front of him. Or he put them in rows and arranged them in squares and pyramids. Applying himself to this exact occupation helped him to overcome his malaise, absorb his discontent and disquiet, reacquire his usual lucidity and composure.

This is how Raimbaut saw him, as with quick assured movements he arranged the pine cones in a triangle, then in squares on the sides of the triangle, and obstinately compared the pine cones on the shorter sides of the triangle with those of the square of the hypotenuse. Raimbaut realised that all this moved by ritual, convention, formulas, and beneath it there was ... what? He felt a vague sense of discomfort come over him at knowing himself to be outside all these rules of a game. But then his wanting to avenge his father’s death, his ardor to fight, to enroll himself among Charlemagne’s warriors—wasn’t that also a ritual to prevent plunging into the void, like this raising and setting of pine cones by Sir Agilulf? Oppressed by the turmoil of such unexpected questions, young Raimbaut flung himself on the ground and burst into tears.

He felt something on his head, a hand, an iron hand, but it felt very light. Agilulf was kneeling beside him. “What’s the matter, boy? Why are you crying?”

States of confusion or despair or fury in other human beings immediately gave perfect calm and security to Agilulf. His immunity from the shocks and agonies to which people who exist are subject made him take on a superior and protective attitude.

“I’m sorry,” exclaimed Raimbaut. “It’s weariness maybe. I haven’t managed to shut an eye all night, and now I’m bewildered. If I could only doze off a minute ... But now it’s day. And you, who have been awake too, how d’you do it?”

“I would feel bewildered if I dozed off for even a second,” said Agilulf slowly. “In fact I’d never come round at all but would be lost forever. So I keep wide awake every second of the day and night.”

“It must be awful...”

“No!” The voice was sharp and firm again.

“And don’t you ever take off your armor?”

The murmuring began again. “For me there’s no problem. Take off or put on has no meaning for me.”

Raimbaut had raised his head and was looking into the cracks of the visor, as if searching in that darkness for the glimmer of a glance.

“How come?”

“How otherwise?”

The iron gauntlet of white armor had settled on the young man’s hair again. Raimbaut hardly felt it weighing on his head. It was like an object that didn’t communicate human warmth, proximity, consolation or annoyance—and yet, he felt a kind of tense obstinacy spreading over him.


CHARLEMAGNE trotted along at the head of the Frankish army. It was the approach march. There was no hurry and they were not moving fast. Around the emperor were grouped his paladins, reining impetuous mounts at the bit. In the trotting and jostling their gleaming shields rose and fell like fishes’ gills. Behind them the army looked like a long gleaming fish—an eel.

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